Sunday, December 28, 2008

Weather Bias

To a meteorologist, this is very, very funny.

Weather Channel Accused of Pro-Weather Bias

Who's Counting Anyway?

So we were eating, talking and laughing at the restaurant, and we counted up the number of vacations I took this year.
  • 3 weeks in New Zealand
  • 1 week skiing at Mammoth, California
  • 1 week in Maui, Hawaii
  • 1 week at the Lair of the Golden Bear in the Sierras
  • 1 week tandem bicycling in the San Juan Islands
  • 1 week in San Francisco Bay Area
In spite (or because of?) all this R&R, Mark and I were both shown appreciation at work. This is only my second cold of the year, par for a healthy person. A good year, indeed.

When Mark totaled up the medical flex-spending receipts, we didn't spend enough to recoup what we had set aside. In fact, I didn't spend enough on health care to justify the extra premiums for double coverage. But we both agreed that the true benefit of double coverage (with automatic cross-billing and coordination of benefits) is the ease of paperwork. We are double covering our entire family in 2009. Our health care delivery and tax systems were devised by lunatics or Machiavelli.

Happy New Year!

Good Times in Bad

I am sitting at home in bed, nursing a cold. My retirement portfolio tanked 30% this year. I regained the 5 pounds I worked so hard all summer to lose. Why am I happy?

I met up with some old friends from Boulder in a pizza joint in Menlo Park on our way home from San Francisco. Our kids played, as we lingered over the meal and at Kepler's books afterwards. I have issues with the way the University of Colorado treats its graduate teaching assistants (not well), but my life is much richer for the people I met there.

As Richard Florida points out in Who's your city?, Boulder really is a special place. It is not just the jaw-droppingly beautiful mountain setting; it's a mecca for Earth Science and Atomic, Molecular and Optical (AMO) Physics.

Last week, I helped preside over an AGU session entitled High-Resolution Active Optical Remote Sensing of Atmospheric Processes in which every paper had a connection to Boulder. (Some of the papers don't list a current Boulder connection, but many authors have studied or worked there at some point in their careers or their Lidar system was built by a laser jock trained in Boulder.) Come to think of it, every other person at AGU seemed to have a connection to CU.

The last two weeks have been a blur, what with discussing science at AGU, volunteering to help run the meeting, visiting family and friends, and catching a cold. There is not much progress on the knitting or reading front. But I did read a fantastic column by James B. Stewart, Good Times Can Be Had in a Bad Economy.
Now we're in the midst of what many are calling the worst recession since World War II, something that might even qualify as a depression. I don't know what the future holds. But looking back over the years has brought me to a somewhat startling conclusion: Recessions have coincided with some of the best times of my life. Is this coincidence or causation? I'm not sure.

I don't mean to minimize the suffering and hardship that recessions bring and that are all too evident now as evictions and unemployment soar and as charitable endowments and donations plunge. But to the extent recessions shake up the status quo and force us to examine our goals and priorities, they also offer enormous opportunities.
Just as my own past health crises helped me get my priorities in order, a recently laid-off friend is exploring new avenues.


Thursday, December 11, 2008

By Apollo!

Oonae bragged about how her baby knows how to lit crit. I had my own proud moment last weekend at LACMA. Mark and I really wanted to see the Hearst the Collector show, but Iris' museum going patience had worn out. We promised her she would see suits of armor if she would just walk through the show quickly with us.

We talked a bit about whether each suit of armor was for ceremonial or actual battle use. But then she was drawn to a room full of vases. The placards identified them as mostly Greek in origin (with a couple of Etruscan pieces) and 2500 years old. They were not behind glass, though they were a bit high for Iris' vantage point.

We tried to decipher the stories on the vases. I thought that one figure might have been Bacchus because of a jar (perhaps full of wine?) next to him. She impatiently said, "No, that's Apollo. He's holding a lyre." She further pointed out scenes from the big war over the woman--the Trojan war.

Then she pointed at a black vase with minimal decoration. "That's the most expensive because that's the rarest. They almost always use their vases to tell stories."

If you go:
  • The NexGen Kids program at LACMA gives free admission to children 17 and under and one accompanying adult per child. The link above takes you to a page showing all the activities for kids and families at LACMA.
  • LACMA Hours and directions
  • We like to go on Sundays because the metered street parking is free.
  • Many families eat nearby at the farmers' market or the Grove, but we prefer Little Ethiopia. Every restaurant we tried has been pretty good. We usually split a vegetarian sampler and a doro wot combo family style.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

This is how it begins

We had our first parent-teacher conference last week and received her first trimester report card. There were no surprises.

This week, Iris came home with another copy of her report card and a blank 'contract'. Her homework assignment was for us to work together to pick areas to strengthen, propose a remedy, write down a deadline for meeting her objectives, and her desired reward for meeting those objectives.

She's eight years old and in fourth grade.

I find this very unsettling, but I signed it anyway.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Side to Side

Someone glanced at my knitting and exclaimed, "Don't you ever knit a sweater side to side, the normal way?"

"Why would I want to do that, when so many others do it so well?"

(15 of 30 motifs so far.)

Sunday, December 07, 2008

I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill

I've finished 13 of 30 apple core units so far. This is the back, without one last row of units on the bottom.
The units are very stretchy and I can block them to make the sweater longer than it is wide. After blocking, I see that I could have knitted the smallest size, with 28 stitches per unit. I am going to plow ahead with the 33 stitch units and make it large enough for layering.

There is no avoiding the twisted K or P through back loops. See how they make the knit column of stitches stand out in bas relief?
Doesn't it make you want to sing?
I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill
On Blueberry Hill when I found you
The moon stood still on Blueberry Hill
And lingered until my dreams came true
Sing the rest.

Prior post:
Blueberry Strawberry Hill

LACMA Sunday

The palm tree is on the scrim, the cloudy sky is real.
Mark and Iris went to a book reading while I visited the Vanity Fair Portraits exhibit. Then Iris and I relaxed in the LACMA bookstore while Mark saw it. I learned much more from the show than the mediocre reviews led me to expect. The first part of the exhibit showed the BACKS of photos, bearing stamps and signatures. They were a window in how the photography and magazine worlds operated. Don't miss the letter from Conde Nast to Cecil Beaton, urging him to agree to a large pay cut, but continue to honor the magazine exclusivity part of the agreement. I was also surprised to learn that, in 1934, $12,000/year would be a large pay cut for Cecil Beaton. I only wish that the placards gave more technical information like the type of print process, or how the photographers achieved some of the effects.
The La Brea Tarpits adjacent to the LACMA complex.
There is much civic boosterism about a "Subway to the Sea" running down Wilshire Boulevard (beyond the fence in the picture) from downtwon LA to Santa Monica Beach. That works well in theory, when you are staring at a map of transportation patterns. But, think about it geologically.

The subway would need to run through underground fields of tar. Can you see the bubbling methane in the photograph? How can you tunnel through that and ventilate the tunnel so that the methane doesn't build up to dangerous levels? Scientists in the USC geology department have strongly cautioned that a subway under Wilshire would be too costly and too dangerous.

This isn't my car

But I should get one for our minivan, but Iris is definitely more the Wise than the Kiss kind.

Friday, December 05, 2008

I'm a finisher*

I suppose everyone has his/her Open Sesame, his/her Abracadabra or Presto Chango, the arbitrary word, event or unforeseen signal that knocks a person down, causes him/her to behave, either permanently or for the short term, out of the blue, contrary to expectation, from nowhere. A shade is pulled, a door creaks open, some kid goes from Geek to Glamour Boy. And Milton's Hocus-Pocus, his Master Key, happened to be a flowy sentence in Mr. Johnson's generic speech, a speech Dad would call "stirring as a wall of cinder blocke," indicative of the "Hallmark fever infecting our politicians and official spokesmen of late. When they speak, actual words don't emerge, but summer afternoons of draining sun and tepid breeze and chirping Tufted Titmice one would feel gleeful shooting with a handgun"

"When he said that thing about Hannah bein' like a flower," Milton said, "like a rose and all, I felt kinda moved." His big right arm lumber-rolled on top of the steering wheel as he edged the Nissan between the cars and out of the Student Parking Lot.
Special Topics in Calamity Physics goes on like this for 500 pages. You are either captivated by this type of gushing prose, or you are not. Why on earth I persisted, is a mystery. Actually, the book might have made a good 150 page mystery. I am the type that has to find out whodunit and I had to read it to the finish Final Exam.

All along the way, I wondered if Marisha Pessl was paid by the word or the pound. The first-person narrative by teenage genius, Blue Ver Meer, is just too precious. She paints mental images with words, accompanied by "visual aids" illustrations drawn by Blue/Marisha. The imagery is certainly vivid, but she and her editors never ask, "Is this image necessary?"

Pessl also hit my two pet peeves, the portrayal of Asian Americans and of modern physics in novels (for I cannot bear to call this book literature). Nearly all the characters are white, and there are plenty of insulting stereotypes to go around. But the portrayals of Asian Americans is particularly galling.

Character development for Blue's roommate at Harvard:
"You," said Soo-Jin, barely turning from Diagram 2114.74 "Amino Acids and Peptides" to hand me the phone.
and for a fellow high school classmate:
"I hope you're reincarnated as a mammal and our paths cross again, sooner rather than later because when I go to med school I doubt I'll have a life," wrote Lin Xe-Pen.
'Nuff said. What about the physics?
Whenever I heard an awful noise, one I couldn't identify, I told myself it was nothing but Chaos Theory, the Doppler Effect or the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle applied to lost people in the dark. I think I repeated the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in my head at least one thousand times; the mathematical product of the combined uncertainties of concurrent measurements of position and momentum in a specified direction could never be less than Planck's constant, h, divided by 4 π. This meant, rather encouragingly, that my uncertain position and zero momentum and the Beast Responsible for the Sound's uncertain position and uncertain momentum had to sort of null each other out, leaving me with what is commonly known in the scientific world as "wide-ranging perplexity."
Huh? Read Heisenberg's own words.

IMHO Phillip Roth wrote the best use of physics imagery in literature I have ever read. Do you remember the line about the (white, lace) shiksa curtains? He described that fleeting moment each evening when glass becomes transparent (when the inside and outside light levels are roughly equal and the incidence angle of the light is less than Brewster's angle). In those few sentences, I could see the window, the curtains, the position of the sun and the yearning boy outside. I could even hear the sounds of dinner preparation inside.

Marisha Pessl is no Phillip Roth.

* One of my coworkers earned a PhD in engineering from CalTech while his wife pursued a PhD in Engligh Lit at UCLA. He told me that the piles of unfinished books around their house was driving him crazy. He didn't understand how she could start so many books and not finish them.

He called himself a finisher, a completer. Even when he didn't like a book, he felt compelled to finish it, just for the closure. He simply could not understand how she could put down book after book before the end. She never did complete her PhD dissertation and it bothers him more than it bothers her.

Anyway, this book taught me I am a finisher, too.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

DNA Shuffle

A friend who suffers from a different auto-immune disorder was wondering how we can have both too much and too little immunity at the same time. I said something handwavy about lymphocytes gone bad. I learned in the November 2008 issue of Science Matters @ Berkeley that everyone makes bad lymphocytes, but healthy people destroy the bad ones before they can leave the bone marrow.
We rely on antibodies to recognize and sound the alarm on potential invaders. Yet our cells come programmed with less than 30,000 genes, far fewer than the billions of foreign structures we might encounter.

Even so, says Mark Schlissel, a Berkeley professor of immunology and pathogenesis, "the immune system is capable of recognizing literally hundreds of millions of foreign chemical structures."

This phenomenal flexibility comes courtesy of a remarkable DNA shuffling system called V(D)J recombination. Just as riffling a deck of cards can produce an endless variety of poker hands, shuffling specialized DNA segments in developing immune cells can produce a different antibody structure nearly every time. During the reaction, enzymes select one of many available genetic versions for each variable antibody segment, snip out the unused portions, and stitch the chosen pieces back together. The resulting antibody travels to the surface of the immune cell, or lymphocyte, where it can recognize bacteria, viruses and toxins in the bloodstream.

"All of us have developing lymphocytes in our bone marrow shuffling these antibody genes around continuously, from the time we are in the womb," Schlissel says. Schlissel studies V(D)J recombination and its place in lymphocyte development. Understanding when this reaction occurs and how it is regulated will help scientists learn to treat leukemia, lymphoma, immune deficiencies and a wide array of autoimmune diseases.
Every shuffle of DNA segments also carries the danger of producing an antibody that recognizes the body's own tissues. To avoid such potential autoimmune reactions, every new antibody undergoes self-tolerance testing in the bone marrow. If the antibody flunks, the recombinase returns to the nucleus for another round of gene rearrangement.
Read the rest of Doing the DNA Shuffle.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Thoughts about Mumbai

From Adventures of a Desi Knitter:
There’s so much to rage about - the rotting, utterly bankrupt and corrupt political system, the bellowing TV anchors and their hysterical, irresponsible and speculative reporting (Note to media: adding a question mark to a rumour - “another bomb at CST Station?” on a moving ticker-tape, or inserting the caveat “Are these rumours true?” above a list of wild, front-page speculations is not ethical journalism!), the blame game among political parties that has already begun, the utter horror of 20-something, smiling youth spraying bullets into crowds, the bewildering cascade of global and local causes and chains that makes such mayhem possible, the knowledge that this will not be the last - but for now, my heart and condolences go out to a fellow Raveler, who lost her mother in the indiscriminate firing that day.
Read the rest of Mumbai. Also, don't miss Flooded and other posts about the lives of ordinary people in India.

New Neighbors

I've written before about the number of useful services within walking distance of my home in "felony flats". We are thrilled to learn that Dave's Olde Book Shop, a used bookstore where we trade in our books, is moving from Manhattan Beach to our neighborhood! Add that to Aardvark's Odd Ark and Cotton Shop, both refugees from pricier Hermosa Beach, and this is a cultural creative paradise.

The downside would be the grittier aspect of living in "Felony Flats". Gunshots were fired at two nearby bars around closing time this year. Note that the bar closest to our home , a gay bar, has much better behaved patrons.

A really cute Spanish-style cottage was bulldozed and developers are putting three townhouses in its place. I am not overly sad about that as, our friendly neighborhood drug dealer lived in that cottage. I was tired of losing my gardening tools to junkies whenever I left them unattended in the front yard even for a minute. Then my belongings would turn up at the perpetual yard sale in front of the dealer's house. Sometimes, buying your own stuff back is less hassle than calling the police and proving that those items were stolen from you*.

And Frank Gehry is moving his office to around the corner from our (work) campus!

* I have never bought anything from that drug dealer, my own stuff or anything else. I am sad to lose my favorite pruning shears and a weed puller thingy from Japan. The ones I have been able to find have not worked so well. I went to a Japanese nursery that sold me the Japanese tool. They told me that their distributor now only imports the cheaper Chinese-made tools as the Japanese ones can't compete on price. Says who? I have used both and I would gladly pay extra for the Japanese one. And why don't we make one in the USA?

Who's your city?

Mardel and I recently read Richard Florida's Who's your city? We both found it a quick read, even though some reviewers at Goodreads found the statistics slow going. Perhaps people who can knit and sew don't have a problem plowing through statistics? ;-)

We were emailing about welcome changes we had seen in our neighborhoods and why we enjoy our respective neighborhoods. Richard Florida is right. The people you meet where you live are a big factor in enjoyment of life and the opportunities afforded you.

Who's your city? departs from Richard Florida's earlier books in that it is partly a self-help book to help people answer the questions, "Where should I live?" If you are looking for carefully annotated scholarly research, read one of his earlier books or papers. If you want a quick overview of his ideas, this is good. The book is organized into four parts:
  1. Why place matters
  2. The wealth of place
  3. The geography of happiness
  4. Where we live now
The first section is classic Richard Florida, quickly covering his research about why the economies of some cities outshine those of other cities? Why do people choose to live in a small apartment in San Francisco (or an even tinier one in Manhattan) rather than live in a palace in Cleveland? Then he proceeds to answer the question and attempts to help readers select the right cities for their stage in life.

I feel an attachment to this book for two reasons. The mega-region hypothesis is supported by light data from our satellites. The second reason is because Mark and I performed a nationwide job and home search at the end of his postdoc. We lived Florida's research. The things we learned about differences between places, and about our own values, led us right here.

It is important to backtrack and note that we both grew up in California--San Diego and San Francisco/Silicon Valley. We went to college and grad school in places like Cambridge, MA; Berkeley, CA and Boulder, CO. We projected what we knew onto the rest of the nation, and we were drastically wrong. We did not live in representative places. Moreover, we had a "two-body problem".

Mark wanted an academic job and I wanted a national lab job. Because we lived in places where both can be found within reasonable commute distance from one another, we thought there would be plenty of places like that. NOT.

Mark sent out two dozen applications and interviewed at over a dozen places before he began to decline interviews. At each interview, Mark asked, "Can I bring Grace here?" At one place, he was so depressed, he asked, "Could I bring myself here?"

[BTW, that was my dad's grad school. When the chair of the search committee called to set up an interview, I answered the phone. He asked me if I even knew where their city was. I replied, "Yes, my dad went to grad school there."

"I guess we don't have a shot at getting you back here." Then he proceeded to call my husband's postdoc adviser to discuss (for an hour!) my career plans and whether I could be content to live there. I believe I was a major factor in why they offered the job to another postdoc in the department.

They knew nothing about the other guy's wife, but it would have saved them much grief if they displayed more curiosity. She wrote a spectacular PhD thesis and had been offered visiting professor positions at both MIT and U of Michigan. They used X State only as a holding position for him until she was ready for her own nationwide faculty job search.]

Anyway, back to the main story.

We naively thought that any metro area of greater than one million would offer enough job possibilities for me. WRONG. We visited one city of 1.5 million that had depressingly few jobs above minimum wage and almost none for PhDs in science. We learned from the other junior faculty about the toll the local job market had upon their marriages. The spouse of one gave up looking for a PhD job after 10 years and went back for a MD. Another faculty member was competing against Mark for positions in more desirable job markets for her spouse.

The universities were no help when it came to two-body job searches. For the most part, they left spouses to their own devices. One school sent me house-hunting with a real estate agent who could boast of nothing other than low, low house prices. The prices were so low, we could buy a house with one income! We would have had to, as there were no job opportunities for me.

Worse, we could only see ourselves as carpetbaggers in those places because we didn't feel like we belonged there. We would only imagine living there until retirement before heading back to someplace where we felt more comfortable.

I came back from one trip and told friends that I was scared to live in city Z as an inter-racial couple. Her brow furrowed. Then a look of recognition flashed. "Oh, you ARE an inter-racial couple." Yep, we had worked and played VB together for 2 years and she hadn't yet realized we were different races. This comes from living in certain highly-rated places in Who's your city. ;-)

The depressing thing we learned was, some cities are traps for young people. If we settled there, then we would be trapped forever by low incomes, limited employment opportunities, and low housing prices. We could never be able move back to coastal California for retirement.

A chance email led Mark to his current job. He came back from that interview more excited than by any other. Why? Because he really liked the people he met. He said they were interesting people and they had hobbies. Mark asked, "Remember when we were interesting people, too? If I took that job, I could be interesting again."

It didn't hurt that LA is a reasonable drive from SD and SF. We had already spent many happy weekends visiting one of Mark's old MIT friends who lived in our current zip code. That friend also happens to be gay, which illustrates another one of Florida's points. And that friend now lives within two miles of where I grew up.

Who's Your City?: How the Creative Economy Is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life is a good companion read to The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart. My only quibble is that both books give short shrift to the two-body problem. They both mention it in passing, but don't delve deeply into why couples like Bad Dad and I cannot live outside of a few metro areas within the US. Florida mentions it only in the context of finding a mate.


I've been dwelling with my collection of Bernina sewing machine feet. Perhaps you have to be a fellow Bernina owner to understand why home sewing doesn't save me money. If the Swiss economy tanks, it won't be for lack of effort on my part.

Iris did not have a pair of pajamas that fit for those "pajama days" at school and camp. She usually wears ratty old dresses as nightgowns. I was embarrassed for her on "pajama days". She now has a nightgown (Simplicity 4767) to match the flannel-lined robe I made earlier out of Liberty of London Tana Lawn. She will be the best dressed kid next time.

The serger still held pink, not beige, thread so I attempted to make this nightgown without the use of a serger whatsoever. I flat-felled the ruffle strips together and employed French seams elsewhere. I used a rolled hem foot for all the hems. I stitched over (stretched) clear elastic at the wrists instead of making a casing and inserting elastic. I cut a size 8, but the sleeves could be 2" longer. Others on Pattern Review mentioned the too short sleeves also.

When I used the ruffler foot for the first time, it was love. The ruffles were gathered in the time it took to snap in the foot and to sew a straight line. Why did I sew for so long without it? (Um, was it the $100 price tag for the ruffler foot and the shank adapter?) I had to break down and use the serger to finish the seam that attached the ruffle to the gown.

I used the ruffler foot again to make curtains for Iris' IKEA Billy corner bookcase, which she uses as a hiding place and a stuffed-animal playhouse. She helped me attach the adhesive hook side of the Velcro to her bookcase. I sewed the loop side to the top of the curtain and we completed the project in 20 minutes!

As long as I had pink thread in the serger, Iris received a pair of pink and maroon pajamas. I forgot to mark the back with masking tape, so I confused the front and back; the seam in the neckband is in the CF instead of the CB. I had just trained Iris to put the neckband seam in the back when she dressed. A better mother would have redone the neckband. This one turned out the lights and went to bed instead.

I used Kwik Sew 2666 for the pants and 2893 for the top. Unfortunately, 2666 is out of print (OOP). I don't know why. I have made the pants in size 8 three times for Iris and the fit is superb.

Iris' cousin and Mark's sister stayed with us this weekend. I made two pairs of pull-on pants. I had to change just the left needle thread on the serger to maroon for the bottom pair.

I made the 4T size from Kwik Sew's Sewing for Toddlers. As Iris grew, I collected the whole Kwik Sew set of books, Sewing for Baby, Sewing for Toddlers, and Sewing for Children. Even if you don't make the patterns, it can be worthwhile to buy at least one of Kerstin Martensson's books just to learn her quick techniques.

I find KM techniques very easy, and they give better (albeit slightly slower) results than Serged Garments in Minutes. The latter's techniques are comparable to the cheap things you would find at the Gap. Why imitate cheap construction techniques at home?

Today's LA Times ran a Melissa Magsaysay piece, Gift-buying made simple. She advocates making the same signature present for everyone. With 55 yards of the Tana Lawn score remaining, I could do that. But I won't. The rest of you can buy your own Tana Lawn PJs online.

More about Kwik Sew patterns in Sweatshop and More from the BMGM Sweatshop.

Friday, November 28, 2008

What really happened to Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern

Did you know their first names were Bob and Carl?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

First Sign of Winter

Camellias are starting to open, starting in the shadiest corner of the backyard.

In contrast, an orchid in the master bathroom sent up a flower stalk during our record warm October.

Significant LA Rainfall

We received our first significant rainfall of the season at Chez Badmom, 0.9" last night and a little bit more throughout the day.

A few links for Los Angeles rainfall data:

Blueberry Strawberry Hill

I cast on for Strawberry Hill from Norah Gaughan Vol 3. Don't the tessalated units look like apple core quilt units?
To figure out how large the sweater will become, I made a 2x2 unit measuring slightly more than 9" across in either direction. The front and back are 4 units long and 4 units wide. Look at that short sweater body! The only reason her belly button doesn't show is because the model is 5'2" tall and is wearing a sweater sized for a 38" bust.
The sweater can always be lengthened with an additional row of units or a border. I am more worried about running out of yarn. I had bought a bag of 10 brilliant blue balls of Maratona years ago. However, one has gone AWOL. With 10, I might have been able to eke out enough yardage if I omitted the turtleneck (not necessary in LA). Webs has the yarn on sale, but not in a matching color. (That didn't stop me from ordering 1 kg of it for a cabled sweater for Mark.)

Maratona's gauge is 5 st/in in stockinette and the pattern calls for 4.5 st/in. To compensate, I knit the next size up, casting on 33 stitches for each unit. Berrocco Palace is a silk/merino blend while Maratona is 100% merino.

The pattern is not hard, once I got the hang of the ptbl, purl through back loop. That, and the frequent turning, make the sweater slow going. I think I have enough sweaters to keep me warm until this one is done. ;-)

Sunday, November 23, 2008


Katy tagged me. I am supposed to write six things about me. I am slow in responding. I already revealed 5 things. By my arithmetic, I owe one more.

When I was 16, I worked as a credit analyst for the consumer credit division of Citicorp, now Citigroup. Yes, they let high school students do that. No, I don't see any connection between their imminent doom and my past employment or their reliance on high school and college students who can pass a simple timed math test.

I was mad at several things that happened while I worked for Citicorp, but in hindsight, I can see that they treated us decently overall and I learned many, many valuable lessons there.

I was originally sent to Citicorp by a temp agency. I didn't even know what I would be doing until after I showed up at their office. The job paid above minimum wage and needed workers during evening and weekend hours. That made it an unusual temporary office position and ideal for students. They sent many of the temp agency workers away after one week trial. After my trial period 0f XXX hours, Citicorp hired me directly.

The job involved taking "instant credit" applications from stores off a fax machine, running a credit check through one of the 4-5 major credit information services (via telex), and then scoring the applicants with a score sheet which I recognized instantly as an algorithm. We were supposed to do all this within 60 minutes of receipt of the fax, except under exceptionally busy shopping times when a manager made the call to suspend the 60 minute turnaround guarantee.

People shop after work or on weekends. Citicorp exploited time differences by hiring workers in the Pacific time zone. It was a perfect fit for students who were content to work those hours.

After I learned a few arcane things*, it was an easy job. I was surprised by how many people were let go because they couldn't score the credit information and add up the points accurately, even with the aid of an adding machine and a scoring sheet. I was also surprised by the number of others fired for snooping--running credit checks on people who didn't apply for credit. That was not spelled out in my initial training, and I was also curious, but I just assumed that would be verboten. The managers probably also assumed that was a given, but we were mistaken in our assumption. Privacy and ethics were then added to the initial training. ;-)

That they had so much difficulty finding enough people who could score credit, following an algorithm that was pretty easy to interpret, encouraged management to change the process. They sent some people to run the telexes only. If the faxes were illegible or were missing information, others called the stores for the required data.

I did that for a few weeks, but I kept losing my voice after we moved from an old office building with operable windows to a newly built office building with inoperable windows. They allowed smoking in the old building, but the windows were kept open. In the hermetically sealed new building, which had plenty of off-gassing from the paint, building materials, new carpet and cubicles, the air quality was awful. I called in sick repeatedly. The office-wide smoking ban went into force after the managers got sick.

They moved me to another section that only scored credit. There were no smokers in that section.

My early exposure to credit scoring algorithms taught me the things that one can do to boost and mess up credit ratings. I must have internalized that because, when we applied for our home mortgage, my FICO score was higher than Mark's, even though he had higher earnings and a longer earning history.

We also ignored negative information from medical services for employed people. Why? My manager told me that people shouldn't suffer because their health insurance didn't pay in a timely manner. He said that health insurance companies were often slow to pay so they could earn the extra float. Or that insurers and hospitals disputed balances. Anyway, it was a frequent enough occurrence that a policy was formulated and followed to cover it. Notice the assumption 25 years ago that every employed person would be covered by health insurance.

During the summer, when I was there during normal business hours, I also spent time with people who fell in the gray areas. That is, they had good cash flow, but moved or changed jobs frequently. Would they be called sub-prime now? I don't know. Credit scoring algorithms are proprietary and I only have experience with an early version of them. Even then, I saw that there were problems. Some people that appeared to be good bets were not**. Others could be good credit risks, but did not score highly enough.

There are some highly skilled and highly paid contingent workers that move frequently with their contracts. They used to have a difficult time establishing credit, but it can be done with extra legwork on the part of the lender. I called banks to confirm bank balances; contingent workers often hold large bank balances to tide them over in between contracts.

I also called former landlords to confirm that they paid their rent on time and moved for reasons other than financial duress. I called former employers to confirm that credit applicants left because they had highly specialized skills that were no longer needed once everything was up and running.

None of these people had any idea they were talking to a 16 year old. It didn't really matter because I could do things that others couldn't, or wouldn't think to do.

I also saw that the bulk of the people there could be replaced by software, which they eventually were. They had to lay people off, and I went in an early round.

I was mad at the time, because my manager told me, right at the end of my shift that it was my last day. I had no warning. But, it really would have been dangerous to let someone who knew they were leaving to remain there. There was so much potential for mischief-making in a place like that; it was prudent to let people go with no warning.

What wasn't prudent was the order they laid people off. The manager said that corporate told him to lay off the people who worked less than 20 hours per week first. Those were the students. Assuming that the manager told the truth, that was a lame decision by corporate. The students were quicker with the math than the "lifers" and we also worked only the busiest hours.

Had I been more savvy, I would have asked for severance pay. I just packed up a box of my stuff and left.

Today, I work in a computer science research group as one of several "domain experts". Sometimes, we are asked to evaluate surprising computer output. Is the problem with the way the software algorithm is implemented? Or perhaps the algorithm does not accurately reflect what is actually happening? Again, I gravitate toward the gray areas. Why work on a problem that has already been solved?

* Back then, credit reporting bureaus were more regional than national. Each region had one or two bureaus that had more information than the rest. Citicorp was paid a flat fee for evaluating each application, but paid a fee to each bureau for each report we pulled. Thus, profitability depended upon us accurately guessing which credit bureau would most likely contain useful information about an applicant. This is especially important for people who have moved. Moreover, young adults may be "missing" data in one database, but not the others, or they genuinely may not have any credit history.

** The algorithm gave married people more points. Yet, divorce is a common reason for unpaid bills. Better credit rating algorithms should take into account the stability of a marriage. I learned early that young marriages had an exceptionally high failure rate and were disastrous to credit.


Sunday, November 16, 2008

Wildfire Weather 2

The Corona/Anaheim Hills aka Freeway Complex fire was quite small yesterday morning when NASA's Terra satellite flew overhead, around 10:30 local time.
By the time NASA's Aqua satellite flew overhead, ~13:30 local time, it was a different story.
Today, the Freeway Complex fire eclipsed the Sylmar fire at 10:30.
And at 13:30. Note the new fire in Baja California, Mexico.
MODIS Rapid Response daily imagery, La Jolla subset. You can download imagery at 2 km to 250 meter resolutions from that page. These images are 1 km resolution.

Satellite data is often organized by Julian day of year, from 1 to 365/366. For instance, today is 2008321. You can go to any day's imagery at the MODIS link above by changing the DOY in the url.
View a Julian Day conversion table.

LA Times put together a Fire Map. The Freeway Complex fire alone has burned 24,000 acres.

Earlier posts:
Wildfire weather
Fire is a river that runs uphill

Tidepooling Wrapup

The tide pools at Abalone Cove Shoreline Park was not as crowded as we feared. We were able to easily find a parking spot. Perhaps the smoke kept people away. Fortunately, the air quality at the park beat the air quality at our house.
The smoke made for a fantastic sunset.
The tide pools did not disappoint.
Anemones galore and some sea worms to the right.
Sea urchins and hermit crabs.

One of two sea hares that we found.
Octopus 3 (of 4 we saw) came out briefly. Iris helped this uni, or purple sea urchin, back to deeper water.
We saw too many brittlestars to count.
We marvelled at the rocks.
Which formed terraces.
Mark skipping rocks at sunset.
We capped the evening off with dinner and a birthday dessert at Cafe Misto.

Yesterday, we picked up friends around the block for carpooling. We then stopped at the food court in Mitsuwa Marketplace for lunch (soba zaru and unagi don, yum!) and Books Sanseido to pick up the latest edition of Mrs. Stylebook (pictures to follow), hit the tidepools, then went out for Mark's birthday dinner.

Today, we ran our errands and then went to a birthday party (same family who went to the tidepools with us), finishing up with a trip to Borders and the new Lebanese restaurant near our home.

The weekend is over and I didn't respond to Katy's meme or go to the gym. Perhaps next weekend.

Happy Birthday Bad Dad

Birthday Cake V1.0 featured one large light bulb (requires 4 AA batteries) in a circuit with a touch switch. Although the snap circuit set came with two switches, Iris selected the touch switch so that she can make the light go off at the exact moment her daddy "blows" the candle out.
Iris had me stall her dad upstairs in the morning while she wrapped his present, a self portrait in pipe cleaners, and made his cake. When he came downstairs for breakfast, she surprised him with this. Awww.

After breakfast, Mark and I settled in with a Sudoku race and Iris played around with her snap circuit set. She discovered that the musical box in the set plays "Happy Birthday" and tried to put that in the circuit with the light bulb. No dice. Or rather, no light.

She tried the smaller light bulb that works with as few as 2 AA batteries. Still no light. She was about to give up when she tried the music box with only 2 AA batteries. It sang! She then built two separate circuits, each with a pair of AA batteries and a switch.

Birthday Cake V2.0 comes with musical accompaniment, albeit at the expense of a reduced wattage bulb.
She had gone to Fry's for a flash light bulb for this experiment out of Sandra Markle's Build a Room Alarm and 16 More Electrifying Projects! but impulse shopper mommy also bought her Snap Circuits SC-300.

We capped off the day with our own version of an electrical parade. We rehearsed before my shower. During the second rehearsal, while Bad Dad showered, she thrust a magnalite in my hand. What happened to the light bulb + AA circuit?

"We have a change of plans." Then she took the flashlight from my hand and handed me the circuit board. Another change in plans. She had switched the switches so that the light stayed on continuously but the music played only with my finger against the touch switch.

She ordered me to turn off the lights in the office/guest room. I complied. She told me to march in place. She swung the flashlight around in arcs. We could see the effect in the mirrored closet doors. Satisfied, she said we were ready to open the door.

We marched through the family room, into the master bedroom and barged into the master bathroom, turning off the lights. He started to get mad, but then he laughed. How can you not be delighted by your very own private "Main Street Electrical Parade"?

I bought Iris the Elanco 60-piece Electronic Snap Circuit SC-300 set. I didn't want to go one up to the 75-piece SC-500 set because I wasn't sure she would use it enough to warrant the extra cost. Now I wish I had sprung for the SC-500 set. She had so much fun with it on Tuesday afternoon (school and daycare closed, mommy busy at work, daddy on a business trip) and this weekend. She doesn't even follow the instruction booklet anymore, preferring to try her own ideas.

My real agenda at Fry's was to buy a IDE to Firewire 800 hard drive sled. Can you believe that they had not a single IDE interface sled in the entire store? I told the Fry's guy that Firewire is negotiable, I would settle for USB 2.0. But he said, "We don't have any IDE interface sleds period; we haven't had any in the past month."

So I am staring down 150 IDE hard drives containing about 2 Terabytes of data (you read that right, 2 Terabytes, not Gigabytes) which I can't read, and I was ready to cry.

My electrical engineer coworker saw my distress and said, "We'll go on the internet to buy components. I will build you exactly what you need. We can even build a dual or quad drive on a single rack." Then he went off to a meeting and came back to my office after the meeting to see how Iris was coming along with the snap circuits.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Everything old is new again

As long as I am raving about Annie Modesitt and musing about the differences between printed and electronic media, have you seen her Flip Books?

Suppose you recently learned how to knit (or are returning after an absence) and forgot how to perform a certain knitting maneuver?

Sure, you can watch your choice of free video clips on the web showing you how to form a knit or purl stitch or perform a decrease. But, do you really want to haul around an electronic device, wait while it fires up, and then search for a broadband internet connection?

You can ask others around you to show you how, but they might not be able to help you. (This is especially problematic for people who knit in non-dominant styles like combination and continental styles.)

Annie's genius was to recognize this and come up with a clever solution using an old technology. Remember those flip books you used to make as a kid to create short animations? Annie converted video clips of herself demonstrating basic knitting techniques into small flip books that you can tuck into your knitting bag. They are portable, instantly on, and infinitely replayable. Each book has two clips ,just rotate the book and view the reverse side of the pages.

Keep them in your disaster/earthquake kit so you can knit through any crisis!

Buy them from her internet bookstore. I appreciate the irony of using new media to sell such an ancient technology. Annie is a real out of the box thinker. And she needs to sell books to pay her family's mortgage and health care costs. Because we are the kind of nation where officials elected to serve us can enjoy health care funded by taxpayers like Annie and Gerry. But Annie and Gerry are not worthy of obtaining publicly-financed health care in their hour of need.

Digital Storytelling

Blogging is a new form of storytelling.

Or perhaps it is a return to the old serial form of storytelling.

Blogging will destroy old media.

Blogging will save media.

I don't have any answers but Beau Friedlander wrote a nuanced piece for the LA Times last Sunday, The Internet vs. books: Peaceful coexistence, that is well worth reading.

I've buried the lead again, as my HS Journalism teacher would say. This post is really a rave review for Annie Modesitt's latest book, Knit with Courage, Live with Hope. It is an edited compilation of her 2007 blog posts about moving her family from New Jersey to Minnesota and discovering that her husband's back pain is really Multiple Myeloma, a type of cancer.

Why buy the book, when you can read the story for free on her blog? Well, that gets me back to the difference between reading a book and reading a blog.

Because you are reading this now, I don't need to tell you that a blog is read from the bottom up instead of the top down. That is, the earliest entries are at the bottom of the page. Reading from the top of the page gives away the ending. I forget that most people are not habitual blog readers and don't know that. To navigate to specific month, you need to click on the monthly archive (sometimes a pulldown menu under the year) link, usually found on the right side of the page, and then read from the bottom up--unless you are the type to read the end of the story first.

We also scroll up and down to navigate around a web page. We turn the pages of a book from side to side. There is a different eye and head motion to reading a book versus a web page. That doesn't seem like a big deal, but a coworker and I were recently discussing the importance of visual memory for locating information. We both recall information in books partly by its placement on a page. If I want to locate a certain graph, I sort of remember whether it was on the left or right page and if it was near the top or bottom. She can also recall the placement of the paragraphs she is looking for.

When scrolling through a web page, the content is constantly jumping around in placement. Perhaps this is another reason why everything old is new again. Papyrus rolls operated in a similar way; as one section is exposed, another section is hidden.

Then there is the tactile sensation of holding a physical book and turning the pages. I like to read in silence, with only the rustling sound of the paper. No blinking ads. No sidebars. Total immersion in the story.

Moreover, you can read a book without electricity or internet connections. No, I don't have a kindle and can't compare that. I don't like reading ebooks on my laptop or computer. I do keep pdfs of programming books on my laptop for quick reference, but I also like to read the physical versions of the books. For instance, I bought the hard copy of IDL Programming Techniques for $80 and paid an extra $10 to download the pdf as well. I could have just paid $25 for the pdf alone, but I really wanted to hold the book. Maybe that was a bad example because I don't really program without electricity or network connections.

And talk about long digressions, this post is about Annie Modesitt and her new book. Go buy the book. Read her blog. Reading the book and her blog are different experiences.

Oh, what about the content of the book?

Annie Modesitt is a knitting goddess, an internationally-known knitwear designer and teacher. Her work is featured in many top publications and she has written several books. She is also a wonderful artist/sculptor that works in unconventional materials (but that is not how she makes her mortgage). I know her as a friend, which is how I came to receive a review copy of Knit with Courage, Live with Hope.

An incurable form of cancer is an unlikely subject for a book with hope in the title. But, reading the book is an improbably uplifting experience. It is also a love story about Gerry and Annie and how they formed a family and life together. The story does not end with them going "poof in the exact same moment as each other when we're 88 after a long and happy life". But the story continues with Annie's characteristic honesty, courage, strength, warmth and good sense.
Gerry will live until he doesn't, but he will LIVE until he doesn't. We - his family - we'll live, too. And we'll use the love we share to pull us through the hardest parts.
And I will be reading.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

LA Tidepooling

Photo courtesy of Steve Wolfe's slideshow of Abalone Cove.

Saturday, November 15 2:00 pm: Abalone Cove Shoreline Park tide pools - Rancho Palos Verdes. Docents from the Point Vicente Interpretive Center (PVIC) will lead groups on a two hour walk along the California Coastal Trail and a visit into the tide pools at the extreme of the low tide discussing geology, plant and animal life, as well as marine mammals, and the Native Americans who lived here. This is a "no take Reserve" so the tide pools are teeming with fascinating marine life. Wear sturdy shoes as a portion of the walk is along the cobblestone beach. The beach access trail is "moderate". No reservations required. FREE - donations appreciated.

Directions: The walk starts in the Abalone Cove parking lot. From the San Diego Fwy., I-405, exit at Hawthorne Blvd.  Drive south approx. 15 miles. Turn left onto Palos Verdes Drive West and continue to the park entrance on your right. 5907 Palos Verdes Drive South. If you get to the Wayfarer's Chapel, you just missed it. The parking fee will be waived from Noon until 12:30 if you tell the attendant that you are going on the walk. Co-sponsored with Los Serenos de Point Vicente and the City of Rancho Palos Verdes (1-310-377-5370). For more info, contact: Sunshine at 1-310-377-8761 or, Subject: Day Hikes.
This gave me an ethical quandary. If I blog about this, the expected crowd might be even worse than usual. However, this is such a rare occurrence and a real treat for kids, it would be remiss not to share this info with other families.

If you look at the NOAA tide tables for Los Angeles, you will see that tides lower than -1.0 (feet below mean low tide) rarely occur during daylight hours. Yet, those are the only conditions that expose the tidepools at Abalone Cove shoreline park. Take a look at the gorgeous photos in Steve's slide show. Abalone Cove has some of the finest tidepooling in California. This is our lucky week.
11/12/2008 Wed     02:35PM LST -1.0 L
11/13/2008 Thu     03:21PM LST -1.3 L
11/14/2008 Fri     04:11PM LST -1.3 L
11/15/2008 Sat     05:06PM LST -1.2 L
11/16/2008 Sun     06:05PM LST -0.9 L 
If you can make it during a weekday, you will encounter less of a crowd (unless there are school groups). This Saturday afternoon should be a madhouse, but that's the only time my family can go. Consider carpooling because parking will be tight.

More info:

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Wardrobe Refashion Update

My six months of Wardrobe Refashion is drawing to a close. I shopped more than I had initially planned. I blame Jesse Garza and Joe Lupo, authors of Nothing to Wear?

The whole finding your style archetype and sticking to it didn't really work for me and several of the people who panned the book on Amazon. But several things they wrote actually resonated with me.

Most women think they are one to two sizes larger than their "ideal" size. They will make do with the clothes they have now and go shopping again when they are their ideal size. We shouldn't wait years--or a whole lifetime. We should always have clothes that fit and are appropriate for the life we live.

Once I culled the things that I will never fit into again, and set aside the stuff I might fit into after hitting the gym more frequently (5 pounds down, another 5 to go. Yay!), I realized why I wear the same things over and over again.

They also mention buying too much "frosting" and not enough "cake". That is, many people buy pretty things that attract them, and don't pay attention to the backbones of their wardrobes. I actually have plenty of cake in my wardrobe, but they don't fit the body I have today. For instance, I had no belts that fit my post-baby waist.

My shoe wardrobe was similarly outdated. I had always collected great, colorful, iconoclastic shoes that were not very comfortable. I also had athletic shoes for several sports, but I didn't have many shoes suitable for work. I bought a few pairs when I left school and started working, over a decade ago. They look very, very tired, despite being repaired several times. Weekdays, I had the choice of decrepit shoes, uncomfortable shoes, or way too casual athletic shoes or sandals. Is that the image I want to project?

Since I learned that I have PsA, I have to accept that I will never "break in" shoes that rub. They will break me instead. The same goes for shoes with heels that are higher than ~1.5 inches. A pair of shoes will not work for me if they send me to physical therapy three times a week. I don't have enough time for the things that are on my plate already, never mind adding 1.5 hour appointments plus commuting time 3 times per week.

Shopping for comfortable and professional shoes is not an easy task. But I did buy a couple of great flat boots this year. Iris and I adore this short black leather boot and a pair of tall black suede ones. I couldn't find a picture of it online, but they look similar to these, only they are Lauren instead of Ralph Lauren and cost a lot less. And don't ask why I am taking fashion advice from an eight year old. I used to be a sales lady in "better sportswear" at Bullock's (now owned by Macy's) and a wardrobe mistress at Berkeley Shakespeare (now California Shakespeare). Iris still insists that I know nothing about fashion.

OMG, what kind of lousy mommy blogger would neglect to mention her child's birthday?

In the spirit of creative reuse, the 3 candle was used 3 times. When Iris' cousin visited last month, we reused the candle for her 3rd birthday cake. Mark could not find an 8 candle at the supermarket so we did some quick arithmetic. Way to put that MIT education to use!


The autoflash setting on my point and shoot did a crappy job of documenting the full blackness of these garments at high noon.

Have you ever read novels where the characters dye their old dresses (or hand-me-downs), and then jazz them up with haberdashery? Ever go, huh?

As part of my wardrobe refashion makeover, I pulled out all my faded and worn black items. Some of them looked a little bit "frosted" at the seams and edges. Others had pale fuzz growing on them. Those are worn fibers that worked their way loose. You can minimize the effect by laundering your clothes inside out. The average age of these clothes is about 8 years and they were looking tired and I was tired of looking like a slob in them.

I tried to vat-dye them in the washing machine today with Procion Jet Black dye* using the instructions on Dharma Trading Company's website. I did great through step 4, and then got sidetracked by organizing and consolidating my stash of Procion fiber reactive dyes. I completely forgot to keep resetting the agitation cycle of my washer and let the dye & soda ash mixture drain out after 15 minutes instead of the 60 I had intended to achieve a dark color.

Then I got so flustered, I forgot to do the cold rinse and went straight to the hot water and synthrapol wash. After one cycle, black dye rubbed off the clothes onto my fingers so I repeated the hot water and synthrapol wash. After that, the clothes lost their inky blackness. They are still a few shades darker than when they went into the washer, so it was not a total failure. They are darker than the photo would suggest. (I do not know why, with the sun directly overhead and glaringly white, my camera's flash went off.)

Anyway, if you try this, follow their instructions exactly. It should work. It should be easy. ;-)

* Because my clothes were already blackish, I only used 1 oz of dye for a load of clothing. Renewing color on clothes should take far less dye than starting with white clothing blanks. They recommend 4% of dry weight of goods (clothes) to achieve a deep black color with this dye, starting with white fabric. I used ~1% to renew the blackness. This would probably have worked if I had left the clothes in the soda ash and dye mixture longer.

The reason I had all my dyes out was because I helped a Brownie troop of 18 girls tie-dye t-shirts yesterday. I also helped them (and their moms) dye other assorted items--probably over 100 items in all. We set up at 8:00 AM, had the girls in and out of the workshop between 9:00 and 10:30, cleaned up the joint and packed all the stuff out by 10:50. Whew!

We spent ~$700 with Dharma Trading Company, but we got lots of great, fun stuff. I will probably be showing more of those goodies as I experiment with them. During a recession, I am not going to spend more money just to keep the economy afloat. But I make a more conscientious effort to spend my dollars with businesses that I really want to stay open. So, if you are thinking of trying tie-dye and live in the western US, I urge your to support Dharma. Their service is great (look at all the useful information they put on their website!), their prices are very reasonable, and they treat people--customers and suppliers alike, with respect.

During the Brownie dye workshop, several mothers asked me how much I charge for the dye workshops in my home. I charge nothing, but expect people to share in the cost of supplies and cleanup. However, one mother said she paid $$$ for a dye workshop at nearby twist: yarns of intrigue. I really shouldn't be undercutting such an unique local business. I heard she has wonderful yarns. She even carries my favorite fair-trade Frog Tree yarns.

Why all this black?
The stuff of life
Stuff Accumulates